Tag Archives: Arena

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group D

The funniest thing about Group D is that Argentina and Nigeria are paired up again! Of the six times Nigeria has qualified for the World Cup, 1998 remains the only time they never had to face Argentina in the group stage! However it was Croatia that was with Argentina in that group stage. So much ridiculous trivia here! Actually one other legitimate piece of trivia is Group D features one of two teams making their World Cup debut. So for more on Group D, here I go:

argentina-Argentina (5)- Argentina is one team at this year’s World Cup with the most accolades. Two World Cups, five World Cup finals appearances, fourteen Copa Americas, and legendary players like Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. La Albiceleste however has garnered a reputation in the last few years of being a team of near-misses. They lost in the finals of the 2014 World Cup and four of the last five Copa America finals. This is especially biting for Lionel Messi. He’s had a career full of feats and achievements. However ever since he became part of the national team since 2005 at the age of 18, a major international trophy has been the one thing he’s never been able to win.

Argentina have been in struggle since the last World Cup. They’ve gone through three coaching changes and almost missed qualifying for the World Cup. It was nothing less than a win needed for their eighteenth-and-last qualifier match against Ecuador to get them in, and they did: 3-1. As for their World Cup chances, they look quite iffy. They have the talent with the likes of Messi, Javier Mascherano (who has more international caps than Messi), Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero. However they lack a strong defense. Their flaws have been exposed in the last two years upon losses to Spain 6-1 and Group D opponents Nigeria 4-2. However Argentina has delivered good wins like 1-0 against Russia, 1-0 against Brazil and 2-0 against Italy. World Cup 2018 is another test for the Argentinian team. Also Russia could be the place where Messi will either become the ‘best ever’ or the ‘best never.’

Iceland-Iceland (22)- Iceland is the team that keeps on surprising the world. Two years ago, they became the first team from a country with a population under 1 million to qualify for a European Championships, and they made it to the quarterfinals, beating England in the process! This time they become not only the first team from a country with a population under 1 million to qualify for a World Cup, but the first from a country under 500,000!

Iceland surprised everybody not just by qualifying for the World Cup, but topping their qualifying group in the process. Iceland proved the fire is still there after Euro 2016. However it appears the fire may have faded since the World Cup qualifying. Iceland’s only wins since have been against two Indonesian teams. They’ve since had to endure losses to Mexico, Peru, Norway and the Czech Republic. Chances are Icelandic fire can come back once they start play in Russia.

Croatia ficed-Croatia (18)- Croatia is a team that has had a lot of hard luck over the past few years. There is less news copy about the playing prowess of the team and more copy about the team’s fans’ obnoxious behavior. And don’t get me started about the Euro 2016 game against the Czechs! Mind you, Vatreni is a team loaded with talent worth noticing.

The Blazers are coached by Zlatko Dalic who has come off of coaching mostly club teams in Croatia and the Arabian Peninsula. The team boasts of top players like midfielder Luka Modric, striker Mario Mandzukic and defenseman Vedran Corluka. Croatia has done well playing against European teams and even won against Mexico 1-0. However they’ve also lost to Peru 2-0  and Brazil 2-0 just recently. Croatia have what it takes to once again move to the knockout round and hopefully go far. World Cup 2018 could be the place where they’re finally back.

Nigeria-Nigeria (47)- Nigeria may not be one of the three African teams that have gone as far as the quarterfinals at a World Cup. However the Super Eagles the only African team that has made it past the group stage in three World Cups. That’s a feat in itself along with three Africa Cup of Nations wins and four more Cup finals appearances.

The current team is coached by German Gernot Rohr who has been coaching African teams for the past eight years and features a wealth of talent young and old. Seven of the teams’ players play for teams in the Premier League. The team features forward Ahmed Musa (who plays for CSKA Moscow), midfielder John Obi Mikel and defenseman Elderson Echiejile. Sure, Russia 2018 may become the fifth time out of Nigeria’s six World Cup runs where they have to face Argentina in the group stage, but they have an advantage; they won in a friendly against the Argentines back in November: 4-2. However they’ve had some noticeable losses this year against Morocco 4-0, Serbia 2-0, and England 2-1. However they could all come together in Russia 2018 and go further than they ever had.

Now that I’m done summing up the teams, it’s time for me to predict the two I think will advance to the Round of 16. It’s a tough challenge, especially since all four have noticeable strengths and weaknesses, but I predict it will be Argentina and Nigeria. However don’t be surprised if it ends up the second qualifier is Iceland. Remember they beat Croatia in World Cup qualifying.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

These past three reviews, I’ve reviewed two stadiums at once. I’ve already reviewed six out of the twelve so I’ll save my next double-review for Group H as I will review the stadiums staging the finals and semis. Save the best for last, right? So here’s my first solo stadium review for this World Cup:

VOLGOGRAD: Volgograd Arenavolgograd

Year Opened: 2018

Capacity: 45, 568

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, D, G, H

Volgograd Arena may be one of the stadiums that’s brand-spanking new for Russia 2018, but it’s on familiar ground. The Arena’s ground is on what used to be the ground for Central Stadium which was opened back in 1962. It was the age of the stadium, FIFA demands and the ability to change capacities that led to the new Volgograd Arena. Its original expense was to be 10 billion Russian Rubles, but ended up being 17 billion Rubles, or $275 million US, in the end.

It has a unique shape where it’s shaped like an overhead truncated cone. The large roof, which rests over a cable frame, resembles a bicycle-wheel pattern through steel-wire cables. The stadium will have many features available to fans like navigation and information support, information, a storage room, and audio visual commentary for those with sight impairment. After the World Cup, the stadium is to be the host venue for local team FC Rotor Volgograd and host a fitness centre.

And there you have it again. Another World Cup group review. And another stadium review. More to come in the ten days leading up.

 

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World Cup 2018 Preview: Group C

Group C may prove to be one of the groups that’s hardest to predict. Some may appear to be clear favorites or likely to be eliminated at the end, but don’t be so quick to judge. Don’t forget nobody expected Costa Rica to top Group D at the last World Cup. So without further ado, here’s my review of Group C:

France fixed-France (7)- Les Bleus has had a reputation of being an all-or-nothing team. France is never short on talent. The 2014 World Cup saw a lot of young French talent on the rise like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezman. This World Cup’s team promises a big mix of the old and the new. The team is still coached by legend Didier Deschamps and are poised to perform very well, especially after the strength of making it to the finals of Euro 2016. France’s play since Euro 2016 has been consistent with wins against England and the Netherlands, but they have also lost to Sweden 2-1 and Columbia 3-2. 2018 is an opportunity for France to win their second World Cup. It’s a matter of them all being there and delivering.

Australia-Australia (40)- When Australia made it to the Round of 16 at the 2066 World Cup, people were expecting more to come from the Socceroos. However they haven’t done as well as originally hoped. In fact they’re coming back from three straight losses in 2014. Not everything is down for Australia. They did win the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. Their play is still struggling to show. The only win against a team outside of Asia was against Honduras in a World Cup playoff.

Australia is coached by Bert van Marwijk who coached the Netherlands to the World Cup final. The team consists mostly of players from the Premier League and Australia’s A-League. 38 year-old Tim Cahill leads the team in what will be his fourth World Cup. The team has a good mix of young and old. Australia can provide another surprise again.

Peru-Peru (11)- Ten of this year’s teams at this year’s World Cup had to wait longer than four years to return to the World Cup stage. Peru has had the longest wait of all: 36 years to be exact. Things have changed ever since they’ve been coached by Argentine Ricardo Gareca who was part of Argentina’s World Cup-winning team. The team consists of players whom play mostly for teams in North and South America. The players are a good mix of youth and experience with defenseman Alberto Rodriguez leading. Peru may have the most experience playing against South American teams, but they’ve had three wins this year against European teams like Croatia, Iceland and Scotland. Peru could be the surprise of the Cup.

Denmark fixed-Denmark (12)- The last time the Danish Dynamite made it to the World Cup was back in 2010. There they didn’t advance past the group stage. Since then, they’re recently acquired Norwegian coach Åge Hareide. The team was able to qualify for the 2016 Olympics and finished in the quarterfinals. They’ve done very well having not lost a game since 2016. They’ve had some notable wins against teams like Ireland and Poland and even drew against Germany last year. Denmark’s current lineup consists of players mostly from the Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Denmark looks poised to be one of the teams from Group C to advance. Russia will be their big test.

Now my prediction for the two that will advance. It’s a toughie but I believe it will be France and Peru that will advance.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Two more stadiums. Both in focus are at least five years old. Both were also built to host major events before this World Cup.

-KAZAN : Kazan ArenaKazan Arena

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 45,379

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 & a quarterfinal

Kazan Arena was first build to host the 2013 World University Games. Kazan Arena has also hosted the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. The stadium has the largest outside screen in Europe and the largest LED installed on a football stadium in the World.

After the World Cup, Kazan Arena will be the home venue of team FC Rubin Kazan, replacing the 25,000-seat Central Stadium.

-SOCHI : Fisht Olympic StadiumSochi Fisht

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 41,220

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, F, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (A1 vs. B2) & A quarterfinal

If you remember the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, you will remember this stadium very well. This is where the opening and closing ceremonies took place. You may also remember the hefty price tag of the Sochi Olympics. This stadium cost $779 million to build!

Names after Mount Fisht, the stadium was originally built to be an enclosed stadium, but has stayed an open-air stadium since 2016 in order to conform with FIFA rules. The stadium complex now serves as a training centre and match venue for the Russia national football team.

And there you have it. The four teams of Group C and two more stadiums. Less than two weeks to go!

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group B

The funny thing about World Cup draws is the surprises they end up having. The biggest surprise about Group B is how close the countries are to each other! As in 2014, Spain is in Group B. However their Iberian neighbors Portugal is in the same group! Their very first match of the Cup will be another episode in their Iberian rivalry and the first on the World Cup stage! Then there’s Morocco just underneath Spain. And Iran isn’t too many thousands of miles away. Actually I think Group B is the group with the least geographical separation! Here’s my take on the Group B teams:

Portugal Fixed

-Portugal (4): The 21st century has seen the coming of age of The Navigators. Their biggest breakthrough came at the 2016 Euro where they went from drawing all their games to claiming the Cup in the end. This will prove to be an exciting World Cup as many believe this will be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to try to win the World Cup, as he will be 37 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around.

Portugal is more than just Cristiano Ronaldo. There’s striker Ricardo Quaresma, midfielder Joao Moutimho and star defensemen Pepe and Bruno Alves. Portugal looks consistent leading up to the Cup. They’ve had a good record since their Euro win. However they’ve had some notable losses like 3-0 to The Netherlands back in March and 3-2 against Sweden last year. They’ve also had some noteworthy draws such as 1-1 to the US and 2-2 to Tunisia. Portugal could just be able to come back to action here in Russia.

Spain Fixed

-Spain (8): Things have been a real struggle for La Roja after the 2014 World Cup. The most notable being ousted in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016. It bit Spain so badly, Vicente del Bosque was sacked as team coach. They now have a new coach: Julen Lopetegui. He comes off of coaching Spain’s youth teams and Portugal’s Porto team. The change of coaching has worked very well. Spain came on top of the World Cup qualifying group. Spain have also not lost a match since Euro 2016 and even had a spectacular 6-1 win against Argentina back in March. However Spain has had some noteworthy draws like a 3-3 draw to Russia and a 1-1 draw to Germany. Much of that is due to Spain’s set of strikers being young and lacking experience.

Leading to Russia 2018, Spain will be led by captain Sergio Ramos; one of four players on the team with more than 100 caps. Spain’s team consists of all but seven players who play for La Liga. Spain also has a lot of strong midfielders in Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and David Silva. Along with Ramos, Spain has Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba adding to their strong defense. 2018 can be another stellar year for Spain.

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-Morocco (42): Nigeria may be most lauded African team but Morocco deserves some credit. They are the first African team to advance past the Group Stage; all the way back in 1986. This will be Morocco’s fourth World Cup and their first in 20 years. They were lackluster in play over the last two decades or they’d just pull a surprise and soon fade away during that time. That has changed since 2016 when they acquired French coach Herve Renard. Renard had coached Zambia to the 2012 African Nations Cup. Ever since Renard helped Morocco qualify for the World Cup, he’s signed with the team until 2022.

Morocco has had an impressive record these past two years. Despite losses like 2-1 to The Netherlands and 1-0 to Finland, they have scored notable wins like 2-1 against Serbia, 2-0 against the Ivory Coast and 3-1 against South Korea. Not too much is expected of Morocco with Spain and Portugal being favorites, but they could pull off an upset in Russia.

Iran

-Iran (36): This is Iran’s fifth World Cup. No doubt they’re hoping this will be their first where they make it past the group stage. Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz has been kept on as manager of Iran since 2011. He’s the coach that has coached the most games involving the national team. Most of the team’s players play for Iran’s Persian Gulf Pro League and Greece’s Superleague. Iran’s victories in the last while have been mostly to Asian teams. However they have drawn 1-1 against Russia and South Korea sending the message that they are capable of more than what most expect. Russia 2018 could just be their moment.

And there’s my look at the teams of Group B. As for who will advance to the Round of 16, I’m going to go with my best hunches and declare Spain and Portugal. However either Morocco or Iran could pull off a surprise.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Two ore stadiums added to the mix. Both will host four matches, all in the Group Stage. And both with host a Group Stage match for Group B. So without further ado:

-KALININGRAD: Kaliningrad Stadium

kaliningrad stadium

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 35,212

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, D, E, G

Kaliningrad Stadium is known for its unique location. It’s in the city of Kaliningrad which is part of the tiny Kaliningrad Oblast: a Russian Oblast bordered by Poland and Lithuania and situated over 400 miles west of the Russian mainland! It’s location at the Baltic Sea explains why Kaliningrad Stadium is also nicknamed Arena Baltika.

This new stadium wasn’t cheap. It came at a cost of € 257 million and had lost its original developer when it filed for bankruptcy in 2014. The stadium is located on Oktyabrsky Island and is expected to reduce its capacity to 25,000 after the World Cup. After the World Cup, the Stadium will serve as the host stadium for team FC Baltika Kaliningrad.

-SARANSK: Mordovia Arena

Mordovia

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 44,442

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, G, H

Like Kaliningrad Stadium, Mordovia Arena will also be practically fresh for the World Cup. However this World Cup Stadium is more about its design. The design is based on the image of the sun, the main symbol of ancient myths and legends of the Mordovian people. The stadium is situated around the Insar River and is part of a big land development for the city of Saransk. Part of the development includes a new residential neighborhood, a new park, and a space for recreation, public festivities and leisure activities.

The stadium has hotels, fan zones and attractions located within walking distance. After the World Cup, the stadium is expected to reduce its capacity after the World Cup to 28,000 and will serve as the host venue for team FC Mordovia Saransk. The stadium will also be turned into the largest sports, cultural and leisure center in Saransk and Mordovia.

So there you have it. Another Group Stage group summary and two more stadiums in the spotlight. More World Cup reviews coming.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group A

It’s a given. Whenever there’s a Euro or a World Cup, I do a rundown of the teams that will be competing. Those of you who remember I did it for the 2014 World Cup, I’m back. As I did for 2014, I will again do a separate blog for each of the eight Group Stage groups. Once again, I will give a preview of the twelve stadiums that will be the stages for this event and save the stadium for the Grand Final for last. Now let’s start with Group A. For the record, my summary of the teams will be done in their drawn World Cup order rather than their FIFA ranking of May 2018. FIFA ranking of that month will appear in brackets.

GROUP A:

Russia Fixed-Russia (66)- Russia had its glory days on the World Cup scene back during the days of the USSR. Since the USSR dissolved in 1992, Russia has qualified for three World Cups but always ended its trip in the group stage. It’s been a frustration. They went through two top ranked Dutch coaches Guss Hiddink and Dick Advocaat and Italian coach Fabio Capello, but would always come up short. Just before Euro 2016, they went back to a Russian coach, Leonid Slutsky, but again fell out in the group stage. Since Euro 2016, they’ve stuck to having a Russian coach. This time it’s Stanislav Cherchesov whose managed Dynamo Moscow and Legia Warsaw in the past.

The Russian team still remain an enigma. Only three of the team’s players play for teams outside Russia. Their recent game results also come into question. They’ve played six games since the Confederations Cup, but only won one: against South Korea 4-2. They’ve since had to deal with losses to big-name teams like Argentina, Brazil and France. The world Cup draw is made so that the host nation doesn’t have that hard of a time to make it past the group stage. Russia’s chances look comfortable as Uruguay appears to be its only tough rival. How far Russia goes is up for the world to see.

Saudi flag-Saudi Arabia (67)- The Saudi team looked like it was heading to better times after they made it past the Round of 16 at World Cup 1994. However the big reluctance to export players to the bigger European clubs has always proved to be the biggest obstacle. The Saudi team would face an exit at the Group Stage during the next three World Cups.

Russia 2018 marks the first World Cup since 2006 with the presence of the Saudi team. All but three of their team members play for Saudi teams. The other three play for La Liga teams from Spain. As for play, Saudi Arabia does not have a very consistent record for the past year. Their biggest win this past year came through Greece. However they’ve also had to endure losses to Belgium, Iraq and Portugal. However anything’s possible in football and the Saudi’s could surprise in Russia.

Egypt-Egypt (46)- This is only the second time Egypt has been to the World Cup. The only other time is in 1990. However Egypt is ready to play well. They’ve hired Argentine coach Hector Cuper to coach the team. The team’s players play for various team in Egypt, Europe and the US. However many consider the heart and soul of the team to be led by 26 year-old Mohamed Salah who as a striker for Liverpool won 2017 CAF footballer of the year. Many see Salah as an emerging great and could boost team Egypt in the future.

Their record leading up to World Cup 2018 is very much in question. Their only wins this past year have come against African teams. Their last win against a team from outside Africa was Bosnia-Hercegovina back in 2014. This year they’ve faced losses to Portugal and Greece. Russia is another proving point for ‘The Pharoahs.’ They may be out in the group stage or they may surprise everyone.

Uruguay-Uruguay (17)- This is the team from Group A that has the most clout. For a long time, Uruguay was seen as a team that was a blast from the past. Their biggest glory days came with World Cup wins in 1930 and 1950 and Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928. However a resurgence of Uruguay on the world scene starting with World Cup 2010 has catapulted the team back to the top of the world elite. It started with Diego Forlan and has now transferred to Luis Suarez. Uruguay’s stint at the 2014 ended in disgrace after Suarez was banned from nine games following a biting incident on an Italian player. And to think Chewy Louie was the player that infamously blocked a potential goal from Ghana at 2010.

Since the incident, Suarez has kept his promise of not ever biting another opponent. He has matured a lot as a player since and serves as Uruguay’s top star. However Uruguay is not just Suarez. The team also boasts another top striker in Edinson Cavani, midfielder Cristian Rodriguez and top defencemen Diego Godin and Maxi Pereira. Uruguay can prove themselves to be a top force to be reckoned with here in Russia.

So there’s my review of the first World Cup group. As for predictions, I’ll just settle for predicting the two countries that will advance past the Group Stage right now, and I predict it will be Russia and Uruguay.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Once again, I get to focus on the various stadia that are hosting the World Cup. I figure the arenas are worth talking about. Russia will have has twelve stadia that will facilitate for the World Cup including two in Moscow. Only three are older than ten years old. All are situated in the European cluster of Russia. Just like Brazil in 2014, Russia all twelve of the stadiums will hold four Group Stage matches but they will be matches for four different groups. Also just like in Brazil 2014, all six of the Group Stage games for each individual group will again be played in six different stadiums, and not all will be that close by. Once again, a lot of traveling around for the 32 teams in a huge cluster of a country. One of which, they will have to cross the border of Lithuania to play in.

It’s confusing, but no less confusing than Brazil 2014. Here I’ll give you my first taste of my Stadium Spotlight of 2018. Note that each stadium I show in my Stadium Spotlight feature will be a stadium that will contest Group Stage matches for each respective group. These two I will focus on will host Group Stage matches in Group A. So without further ado, here are the two stadiums in focus:

-YEKATERINBURG: Central Stadiumyekaterinburg-world-cup-stadium-1024x576

Year Opened: 1957

World Cup Capacity: 35,696

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, F, H

Central Stadium is one of only two stadiums at this World Cup that was built in the 20th Century. Though there’s no doubt they’ve had to undergo extensive renovations over the years including preparations for this year’s World Cup. Actually the arena was a stadium for speed skating. The shift to football and other sports have been the focus since the downfall of the USSR.

The stadium will have 12,000 temporary seats for the World Cup. After the World Cup, it will be the host venue for team FC Ural Yekaterinburg. In addition, there are plans to add a fitness centre and a Valeological centre.

-SAMARA: Cosmos ArenaCosmos Samara

Year Opened: 2018

World Cup Capacity: 42,374

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, E, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (E1 vs. F2) & a quarter-final

Cosmos is one of many stadiums built fresh for this World Cup. It came at a cost of $320 million. The building of the stadium was first meant to be built on an island close to the city, but the intended construction of a bridge, and the public’s uproar over its total expense, led it to be built in the north area of the city.

After the World Cup, it will be the host venue of team FC Krylia Sovetov Samara.

And there you go. My first preview of the World Cup teams and stadiums. Seven more groups and ten more stadiums to review before World Cup 2018 starts. Stay tuned for more.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group H

Funny how people refer to ‘Groups Of Death’ to groups packed full of the best talent in the world. Group H consists of four teams that are not considered major threats to the World Cup but any of the two can move to the Round of 16. Also don’t count any of them out as possible challengers for the cup. So for my final group rundown, here’s my take on Group H:

Belgium-Belgium (12)- If you thought it was a surprise to see Switzerland among the seded team in FIFA’s World Cup draw, it should have been just a surprising to see Belgium. Even though Belgium was in the FIFA Top 8 at the time, Belgium is a country one would not normally expect to see as a seded team. Their best World Cup finish ever of the eleven previous World Cups they’ve played in was fourth in 1986. The last World Cup they played in was 2002 and they didn’t even qualify for Euro 2012. However that all changed in 2012 when they hired Marc Wilmots as head coach after being assistant coach for three years. Wilmots himself had played for Belgium in four World Cups and even scored five goals in World Cup play. Belgium was placed in possibly the most difficult European qualifying group for 2014 but they played like magic. They won eight games and tied the other two en route to coming first in their group and automatically qualifying with just one game to go. The spirit of the Red Devils was felt again in their homeland as the country greeted them upon their return in big fanfare. Their success helped put them in FIFA’s Top 8 around the time of the draw which led to them classed as one of the seded teams. Their performance in qualifying was so impressive, Wilmots was signed on to be coach for another four more years. However Belgium’s play in friendlies have not been so spectacular as they’ve lost to Romania, Colombia and Japan. They do have impressive wins against the U.S.A. and Sweden and even tied France. Nevertheless their lackluster friendly play has dropped them from the Top 8 and now stand 12th. Nevertheless this is a big boost for country as this will be their first World Cup in 12 years. Half the team play for top European teams like Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Whatever the situation, no doubt they’ll send the message that Belgium is back.

Algeria-Algeria (25)- Algeria is another team coming to this year’s World Cup hoping for a breakthrough moment. They’ve competed in three World Cups before: in 1982, 1986 and 2010. They have had better luck defining themselves at the Africa Cup of Nations where they’ve made it as far as the semifinals five times and even won back in 1990. However they’re hoping this World Cup to finally progress past the Group Stage. Their squadron is coached by Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic who coached the Ivory Coast at the 2010 World Cup. Top players include Madjid Bougherra, Islam Slimani and Sofianne Feghouli who’s already being called ‘the New Zidane.’ Algeria won their opening group in qualifying for the World Cup. They would then face Burkina Faso for the berth. The first game ended with a 3-2 loss but Algeria came back 1-0 to clinch their trip to Brazil. They’ve also not lost a friendly in the past two years and would include wins against Slovenia and Romania and ties to South Africa and the Ivory Coast. If they play consistently, Algeria could have their best ever World Cup here.

Russia Fixed-Russian Federation (18)- Russia is a team that has struggled to prove itself since the breakup of the USSR back in 1991. Back during the days when the USSR did well by advancing past the Group Stage in all but one of their seven World Cup appearances and even finishing fourth in 1966, the majority of Soviet players were Russian. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia has continued to shell out remarkable talents in the years since. However the national team has always fallen short of making a statement of their prowess. They’ve only qualified for two World Cups–1994 and 2002– and only went as far as the Group Stage in both cases, even though Ukrainian-born Oleg Salenko set a World Cup record in 1994 with the most goals in a single World Cup game: five. They did however have a moment of glory by finishing third at Euro 2008. However they come to Brazil looking for more as they will have the task of hosting the next World Cup in 2018. No doubt they want to create an impression here. Although all the players play for Russian League teams with many playing for Dynamo Moscow, their coaching staff is almost all Italians and the head coach is Fabio Capello who has coached AC Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus and England up to 2012. Russia performed well enough in qualifying to win their qualifying group over heavily-favored Portugal. They’ve showed their abilities by scoring wins against Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea and Morocco. They’ve also tied countries like the U.S.A. 2-2, Serbia 1-1 and Brazil 1-1. It’s make or break for the Russian team here in Brazil. They come to play well and learn.

Korea-South Korea (55)- Isn’t it interesting that Group H has two teams named The Red Devils? There’s Belgium, where the Belgians call them les Diables Rouges or de Rode Duivels, and there South Korea who also go by the name the Taegeuk Warriors. South Korea has traditionally been the best team in Asia. None of the other Asian countries here in Brazil have as much of a track record as South Korea who will be playing in their eighth straight World Cup. Their best finish ever was a fourth-place finish in 2002 when they co-hosted with Japan. Much of their prowess has to be with the K-League that was started in 1983 and has really taken off since. However South Korea appears they don’t have the prowess they’re used to showing. They’ve had wins against Greece and Switzerland in the past two years. However they’ve had to endure losses to Brazil, Croatia, the U.S.A., Russia and Mexico. Since qualifying for the World Cup, they’ve changed coaches to Hong Myung-Bo who’s had experience coaching in the MLS. They’re hoping he can make an improvement for the team and he’s already helped Korea move up to 55th from 59th a month ago. It’s quite possible they might prove in Brazil those low FIFA rankings are just bad estimates.

And now my prediction for the two advancers: I predict Belgium and Russia with Algeria the one most likely to upset.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Okay, I’m done reviewing the last World Cup group. Now time to focus on the last two World Cup stadiums. My final Stadium Spotlight focuses on the two stadiums in two of Brazil’s biggest cities. One is a new stadium, the other is old and legendary. On will be hosting the opening ceremonies and opening match. The other will be the stage for deciding the winner of the Cup, just like it did 64 years ago.

-SAO PAULO : Arena de Sao PauloSao Paulo

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 61,606

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, D, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (F1 vs. E2) & a semifinal

Sao Paulo’s new stadium came about as Estadio Pacaembu was too small to host World Cup games and was getting too old. Also the much bigger Estadio de Morumbi was judged by FIFA as unsuitable to hold World Cup games. Thus the creation of the Arena de Sao Paulo. However creating the stadium came with difficulties. First, national funding for the stadium was delayed for two years. Secondly, the Arena originally planned to hold 72,000 for World Cup games. Relocation of TV Equipment and VIP seating reduced the capacity to 61,606. Even though the stadium has officially been opened on May 10th, it was noted modifications were still underway two weeks ago and people are still unsure if the stadium has been finished. They better be ready June 12th because they’re hosting the opening ceremonies and first match: Brazil vs. Croatia. After the World Cup, the seating will be reduced to 48,234 and will be managed by the Corinthians football team who will have the stadium renamed Arena Corinthians. The stadium is also a venue for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

-RIO DE JANEIRO : Estadio do Maracanamaracana 1

Year Opened: 1950

World Cup Capacity: 78,838

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, E, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (C1 vs. D2), a quarterfinal & final for the Cup

If many people view football as a religion, then the Maracana has to be one of its prize temples, especially for Brazilians. This stadium was opened in 1950 to host the World Cup. The final game of that World Cup set a world record that stands today of the largest attendance of a soccer game: official count at 199,854 but actual attendance is estimated around 210,000. Since the World Cup, the Maracana has continued to attract large crowds to games for clubs like Vasco da Gama, Botafogo, Flamengo and Fluminese. The latter two still have the Maracana as their home stadium. However the capacity was greatly reduced in 1992 when an upper stand collapsed, killing three and injuring 50. Remember there was a time when stadiums allowed for both seats and standing area which allowed for such big totals I talked about. The Maracana was converted into an all-seater stadium since the accident. A bit of trivia: The Maracana can never be demolished as it was classified as a national landmark in 1998. Maracana 2

For the 2014 World Cup, major preparations and changes had to take place. The irony being the stadium had already underwent major renovations starting in 2000 just after it celebrated its 50th anniversary and completed in 2007. The original seating bowl that had a two-tier configuration was demolished and made way for the construction of a one-tier seating bowl. New seats in colors of yellow, blue and white form among the green match of the field to create the national colors of Brazil. The renovated Maracana played host to the Confederations Cup last year. After the World Cup, the stadium will return to being the host venue for Flamengo and Fluminese, continue to host major concert and will be the stage during the 2016 Summer Olympics for football games and the opening and closing ceremonies.

And that wraps it up. I’m done predicting World Cup groups and I’m done reviewing World Cup stadiums. All that needs to be done is let the show begin. I’m sure it will be a memorable one.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group F

Group F is one group that has one country almost guaranteed to come out on top. However the second team to move on could be any of the other three. I guess Group F is a ‘Group Of Death’ in that sense. Here’s my rundown of the Group F teams:

argentina-Argentina (7)- Argentina is another country at the World Cup with a legacy. This is their sixteenth World Cup. They’ve made it to the finals four times and won twice. Argentina has always been seen as a real threat in football these past few decades with a well-known aggressive play. They’ve been churning out great after great with Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, Carlos Teves and most recently Lionel Messi. However they do have their glitches. For starters, they have not made it past the quarterfinals since 1990. With Maradona coaching, it looked like 2010 would be the year they’d break their bad luck. They almost did as they were brilliant in group play and in their Round of 16 match against Mexico but were halted by Germany 4-0. Getting knocked out in the quarterfinals at the 2011 Copa America didn’t help either. However the team made considerable improvement with the addition of Alejandra Sabella as coach. Since then their only losses came to South American teams like Brazil, Venezuela and Uruguay, teams they would eventually beat in another recent game. On top of that, Argentina never lost to a European team under Sabella’s coaching. No doubt they have the talent to win. Many predict them to be finalists in Brazil at least. It’s just a matter of them delivering.

Bosnia-Bosnia-Hercegovina (25)- It’s very common for an athlete or a sports team to lift the spirits of a troubled nation. Bosnia-Hercegovina is a nation still recovering from its brutal civil war from 1992 to 1995. However at last year’s World Cup qualifying, Bosnia’s team gave the people something to cheer about. Also people on the streets could talk about something other than the war. The team was brilliant in qualifying play winning eight games, drawing one and losing one. They scored 30 goals and only conceded six. You can credit this to the guidance of coach Safet Susic and the play of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko.  They were impressive in World Cup qualifying play and they’ve had varied results in friendly play with wins against Mexico and the Ivory Coast but 2-0 losses to Egypt and Argentina. The World Cup is a chance for Bosnia to grow as a team. They’re the only team in Brazil competing in their first World Cup. They pretty much have nothing to lose and everything else to gain.

Iran-Iran (37)- Iran comes to their fourth World Cup here in Brazil hoping for a breakthrough. They’ve won the Asian Cup three times from 1968 to 1976 but have never been able to advance past the Group Stage at the World Cup in their three previous appearances: 1978, 1998 and 2006.  The current team is coached by Carlos Queiroz who managed Portugal at the 2010 World Cup. Top player is Charlton Athletics forward Reza ‘Gucci’ Ghoochannejhad who did most of the scoring in World Cup qualifying. They have been able to show their prowess well by beating South Korea, who is traditionally Asia’s strongest team, twice. Most of their friendly play has been so-so as they’ve drawn three of their four matches, only losing to Guinea 2-1. 2014 looks like a great chance for Iran to have the World Cup breakthrough they’ve been waiting for.

Nigeria-Nigeria (44)- Nigeria had its best days in the 1990’s when it made it to the Round of 16 in two World Cups. They come to their fifth World Cup hoping to reclaim their greatness despite not having a lot expected upon them. They are the reigning African Cup of Nations holders from 2013. The team is led by Stephen Keshi who was part of Nigeria’s first ever World Cup team back in 1994. The team’s players come from a mix of players from European leagues and Nigeria’s national league. Some of their star players like John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses and Efe Ambrose play for the top teams like Chelsea and Celtic. Nigeria has performed well in friendly play, losing only to Mali and Ghana in penalty kicks. They’ve also has scoreless draws against Mexico and Greece and 2-2 draws against Scotland and Italy. 2014 could be a comeback for Nigeria.

Now my prediction for the two advancers: they only way I cannot see Argentina from being #1 in this group or failing to advance is if they’re too overconfident, but I highly doubt it. Second advancer will be Iran, though Bosnia-Hercegovina can have a case of beginner’s luck if they play as brilliant in Brazil as they did in qualifying.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHTSalvador

-SALVADOR : Arena Fonte Nova

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 48,747

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, E, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (H1 vs. G2) & a quarterfinal

Salvador was one of those cities that needed a new stadium. However its top reason wasn’t because of the luxury of hosting a World Cup but of a tragic disaster instead. The older Estadio Fonte Nova, built in 1951 and home to football club EC Bahia, was starting to show its wear. Then on November 25, 2007, a section of the stadium’s highest terrace collapsed during a game celebration. Seven people were killed and forty others were injured. The governor of Bahia was fast to act as the next day he closed the stadium and the day after ordered that the stadium be demolished and a new one be created. The stadium seats were all demolished with only the field being kept. A group of architects from Brunswick, Germany who helped redesign Hanover’s old stadium in time for the 2006 World Cup were put in charge of the redesign of the Fonte Nova including turning it from a stadium into an arena with a lightweight roof.

The new stadium was opened in April 2013 and even hosted some games of the Confederations Cup. In the months leading up to the World Cup, the stadium has had problems such as blind spots for some spectators as well as some puddles and excessive dust. In addition, the lightweight rood proved to be too lightweight as a section collapsed May 27, 2013 because of heavy rain. No one was injured. The organizers said they were aware of the problems. Whatever the situation, they had a whole year to get it right in time for the World Cup. The World Cup scene and the months thereafter will determine its effectiveness and functionality.

Not only will the stadium be home for FC Bahia but the surrounding area includes a panoramic restaurant, museum of football, car parks, shops, hotels and a concert hall.

And there you go. Another group and another stadium reviewed. Two more groups and three more stadiums to focus on.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group C

Group C may look like a more relaxed group as compared to groups like Group B, Group D or Group G, but don’t be so quick to dismiss. There have been teams from nowhere that would come to surprise and finish high, if not win. Group C may come with one of those surprisers and it could be any of the four teams. All four have reputations of being ‘sleeping giants’ and it could be right here in Brazil where they finally arrive. Here’s my rundown:

Colombia-Colombia (5)- Colombia is one of many great teams who never had the change to deliver well at the World Cup. There was a period in the 90’s when they were one of the best teams in the world but during those three World Cups, they only made it past the Group Stage once and even then only got as far as the Round of 16. It’s a question of what it was: not all being together, political tension at the time, best players sidelined. We’ll never know. But now there’s a new Colombian team picking up where the previous one left off. They’re currently ranked in FIFA’s Top 5 and they’re hoping to deliver this time around. They have the players and the clout. They also have a good coach in Jose Pekerman who often selects players for a specific role rather than their profile. He was successful in coaching Argentina to the quarterfinals in 2006. They’ve even played well in recent games, tying Netherlands 0-0 and beating Belgium 2-0. Colombia can finally arrive on the World Cup scene here in Brazil.

Greece ficed-Greece (10)- This is one team whose prowess over the years has grown considerably. Their first World Cup was in 1994 and they were uninspiring: losing all three of their matches and scoring no goals while conceding ten. Things have really picked up for Greek football since. They were the surprise winners of Euro 2004. They returned to the World Cup and even though they didn’t advance past the Group Stage, they still had the benefit of winning a game: 2-1 against Nigeria. For 2014, they’re a top-ranked team in good hands with Portuguese coach Fernando Santos who has been very successful coaching in both Portugal and Greece. He guided Greece to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 and to a consistent track record since, losing only to Bosnia-Hercegovina and South Korea. This is possibly Greece’s best team ever and there’s no better time than now for them to prove themselves.

Ivory Coast-Ivory Coast (21)- At every World Cup since 1986, there’s been at least one African country that advances past the Group Stage. Some have made it as far as the quarterfinals. Many have expected the Ivory Coast–or Cote d’Ivoire– to be that team but ‘The Elephants’ have played below expectations in their two World Cup appearances in 2006 and 2010. Even though they have Didier Drogba, one of the greatest African football players ever, he can’t be a one-man team. Nevertheless the team has been very consistent in recent years. Much from the help of French coach Sabri Lamouchi who has guided the team these past couple of years. They finished second in the African Cup of Nations in 2012 and even tied Belgium 2-2 in a friendly this year. Even at 36, Drogba still looks and plays strong and the team consists of other good talents like Manchester City star Yaya Toure and promising young gun Serge Aurier. This could finally be The Elephants’ year.

Japan-Japan (47)- No other nation has experienced increased growth of football in the last 20 years the way Japan has. It all started with the creation of the J League in 1993 when football really took off and helped Japan qualify for their first World Cup in 1998. They’ve qualified for every World Cup since even co-hosting in 2002 where they made it to the Round of 16 for the first time. Success continues for the Blue Samurais. They’re coached by Italian Alberto Zaccheroni They feature star players in the top European leagues including Keisuke Honda with AC Milan and Shinji Kagawa with Manchester United. From the first year Zaccheroni assumed the role of Japan’s coach, they won the 2011 Asian Cup. They’ve has mixed results in international play these past two years but have shown their strength trough ties against the Netherlands 2-2 and wins against France 1-0, Belgium 3-2, Ghana 3-1 and South Korea 2-1. They may rank low on FIFA’s chart but they could perform above expectations here.

Now my prediction for the two that will advance. It’s a toughie but I believe it will be Colombia and Greece that will advance.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Now that I’m done all the stadiums that will just hold Group Stage, I’ll now be focusing on stadiums that will host matches in the knockout rounds. One is brand new while one is older and has a reputation. Both will be known for their capacity and features and are both expected to have sufficient post-World Cup use.

-RECIFE : Arena PernambucoPernambuco

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 46,154

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, D, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (D1 vs. C2)

Pernambuco is a new stadium that was built not just for the World Cup but for last year’s Confederations Cup too. Pernambuco is a new stadium not just built for the World Cup and for Recife to have a new football stadium but also to give a financial boost to a deprived area of the city. Plans for the surrounding area include a university campus, indoor arena, hotel and convention centre, plus commercial, business and residential units and a large entertainment complex with shopping centres, cinemas, bars and restaurants. The biggest feature of the stadium is its intent to be a ‘Green Arena’ relying on solar power and even serving the purpose of being a solar power plant to power 6,000 people when not used for game play and be part of the research and development of solar power in Brazil. Football club Nautico Capibaribe is expected to make this stadium home after the World Cup.

-FORTALEZA: Estadio CastelaoFBL-BRAZIL-WC2014-FORTALEZA-CASTELAO ARENA

Year Opened: 1973

World Cup Capacity: 67,037

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, D, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (B1 vs. A2) & one quarter-final

Castelao is one of the few stadiums at this year’s World Cup to go through two major renovation projects. The first came in 2000 and it was a three-stage project that lasted a year. Then once it was assigned as a hosting venue for the World Cup, it was given a twenty-month reconstruction project starting in March2011: a mere ten years after the first set of renovations were completed. Whatever the situation, Castelao was the first World Cup venue to be completed, back in December 2011. Castelao was one of the venues for last year’s Confederations Cup. Castelao Stadium has always been a venue that has hosted big events in the past. Castelao plans to continue to host major concerts and serve as host venue for Ceara and Fortaleza Sporting Clubs.

And there you have it. My take on Group C and two more stadiums reviewed. Five more groups and six more stadiums to go.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group B

The funny thing about the World Cup group draws is its unpredictability. They try to make things easier by designating seeded teams from all the others to give better parity only to end up with a crazy combination. Group B has a combination crazy enough to have the very first match a rematch of the exact World Cup final from 2010! Also just as surprising is that Group B has four teams that are very talented but it’s not enough to call it the ‘Group Of Death.’ I think there was more than one ‘Group Of Death’ for this World Cup. It’s a wonder why Group B didn’t get that label.

Despite these oddities, Group B is loaded with talented teams and should make some exciting play. Here’s my rundown of the Group B teams:

Spain Fixed-Spain (1)- Now seems to be ‘The Reign of Spain.’ Spain has always been known to be full of football talent but the team hardly ever came together at World Cup tournaments of the past, often performing below people’s expectations. This would cause Spain to be known as ‘football’s greatest underachievers’ for a long period of time. This all changed when Vicente del Bosque was appointed coach of Spain’s national team in 2008. Since then, Spain’s magic came about. It all started with winning Euro 2008, then surprising everybody including their compatriots with a win of the 2010 World Cup. Spain’s long-awaited legacy continued with a win at Euro 2012 and becoming the first team ever to successfully defend their European Championship. Spain’s success continued as they played without a loss until the finals of the Confederations Cup where they lost to Brazil 3-0. Spain continues to be brilliant only losing one game since, 1-0 to South Africa. Spain just recently beat Italy 1-0 in a friendly. They appear poised to repeat in Brazil. It’s the next month that will define things.

Netherlands Fixed-Netherlands (15)- While Spain is no longer ‘football’s greatest underachievers,’ the Netherlands have the misfortune of being seen as the greatest team in the world to never have won a World Cup. Three times a finalist, never a winner. Oranje is waiting for that day to prove themselves the best in the world. However it will come a t a challenge. Back during Euro 2012, the Netherlands performed one of the biggest chokes in their history by losing all three of their Group Stage matches. 2013 was a year they really wanted to make up for things and they did well by not losing a game. However failing to win all four of their friendlies since World Cup qualifying including a 2-0 loss to France shows that they might not be ready for this World Cup. This is unfortunate for head coach Louis van Gaal as he would like to leave team Netherlands on a positive note. Nevertheless it could be that Oranje is just ‘playing possum’ and may come alive in Brazil.

Chile-Chile (13)- Chile is another team full of talent that has yet to prove itself in a big way. The team that is affectionately called ‘La Roja’ by its compatriots and supporters have only gone as far as 3rd at the World Cup, and that was back in 1962 when they hosted it. In recent years, Chile has been better at its consistency. They’ve qualified for the 1998 and 2010 World Cups and finished in the Round of 16, the only other two times they’ve made it past the Group Stage. Chile has had a great play record since 2013 in both friendlies and World Cup qualifiers. They’ve shown they can challenge some the best teams in the world, if not defeat them. They beat Uruguay 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier last March, tied Spain 2-2 in a September friendly and even beat England 2-0 in a friendly in November. However they have lost to Brazil 2-1 back in November and lost to Germany 1-0 this March. Most people are predicting Spain and Netherlands to be the two advancers from Group B. There could be a Chilean surprise.

Australia-Australia (59)- The Socceroos were the surprise of the 2006 World Cup. Their 2006 advance to the Round of 16 led them to be transferred from Oceania’s continental federation to Asia’s. However their prowess has taken a bit of a dip. They didn’t advance past the Group stage in 2010 and have struggled in play for the Asian Cup. The 2013 and 2014 play seasons have been unimpressive including 6-0 losses in friendlies against both Brazil and France. In 2014, they’ve had a 4-3 loss to Ecuador and a 1-1 draw to South Africa. 2014 could be a further learning experience for Australia.

So now my prediction for the two advancers from Group B: Spain will definitely advance but it will be tight between Netherlands and Chile in which I feel Chile will be the one moving on.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

More stadiums in focus. Like the stadiums focused in my Group A review, these two will also host four matches, all in the Group Stage. And both with host a Group Stage match for Group B. I also want to remind you that in my Stadium Spotlight, I won’t completely compliment the stadiums. In fact I will make aware of some of the glitches, especially since glitches in the construction and/or upgrades of stadiums have made big news leading up to the World Cup. And these two have been two of the ‘bad news bears.’ So without further ado:

-CUIABA: Arena PantanalPantanal

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 42,968

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, C, F, H

There’s been a lot of concern of the readiness of many of the stadia set to stage the World Cup. Cuiaba is one stadium that’s been causing some of the headaches. One of the headaches happened back in October when a fire caused structural damage, which has since been repaired. In fact Cuiaba needed a second World Cup warm-up match on April 28th to prove its readiness. FIFA was pleased this time around. Nevertheless it didn’t guarantee the stadium was 100% ready. Work returned to the stadium shortly after and on May 9th, a worker was killed when he was electrocuted while working on the installation of a telecommunications network. Work was halted temporarily after his death.

Ready or not, Arena Pantanal will be the stage for four Group Stage games. After the World Cup, the Arena is to be reduced in capacity and to be the home venue for both Cuiaba and Mixto Esporte Club.

-CURITIBA: Arena da BaixabaCuritiba

Year Opened: 1999

World Cup Capacity: 41,456

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, E, F, H

Not all World Cup stadium problems are about the new stadiums. Existing stadiums have had their own problems too in terms of renovations or upgrades. Curitiba’s Arena da Baixaba is one stadium that had its issues. The stadium had plans for upgrades like extra seats and a retractable roof. The stadium suffered a setback in October 2013 as work was suspended  on the orders of a Brazilian labor tribunal due to numerous and serious safety breaches. An extra headache came in January 22 of this year when FIFA’s General Secretary visited the Arena and said Curitiba could be dropped if significant improvements in the renovations didn’t take place within a month. FIFA decided to keep Curitiba the following month. Recently there was some good news about the Arena. Valcke visited the Arena again on May 22nd and this time he praised it for being a ‘top-class’ venue.

The venue is expected to have its seating reduced once again to its usual 30,000 and return to being the host venue for Atletico Paranaense.

So there you have it. Another Group Stage group summary and two more stadiums in the spotlight. More World Cup reviews coming.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group A

Those of you that have known my writing over the years have  known that when I do soccer blogging of major events, I do a rundown of the teams that will be competing. Some of you may have guessed I’d be doing it again for the World Cup, and you are right. However I’m doing a separate blog for each of the eight Group Stage groups. So much to preview, so little space. With this being my first blog of the upcoming World Cup, then it’s no question the first blog will be done on Group A. For the record, my summary of  the teams will be done in their drawn World Cup order rather than their FIFA ranking of May 2014. FIFA ranking of that month will appear in brackets.

GROUP A:

Brazil-Brazil (4)-No other country has as much of a football legacy as Brazil. Brazil is the only country that can boast competing at all nineteen past World Cups and the only country to have won the World Cup five. The World Cup arena has been an excellent showcase of Brazilian football at its best and it has inspired the world around. However we’ve also seen Brazil choke at times, especially in recent competitions. Just ask France. They’re known as Brazil’s ‘achilles heel’ and have handed Brazil some surprising defeats including the 1998 world Cup final and the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal. In both cases, Brazil was the defending World Cup holder. Brazil’s recent chokes were more humbling as they choked to the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal and at the 2011 Copa America, they lost their quarterfinal in what was Brazil’s worst-ever Copa America performance.

Brazil can’t take any chances at this World Cup more than any World Cup. They’re the host country and all the world expects them to win. They especially want to rid their compatriots of the 1950 ‘Maracanazo,’ which I will talk about in another blog. Yes, Brazil may have won the World Cup more than any other country but of the eight countries that have won the World Cup, Brazil and Spain are the only ones to fail to do so as host country. Brazil hopes to end this ignominy this time around. After their Copa America debacle, they sacked their coach in favor of Luiz Felipe Scolari who helped coach Brazil to its last World Cup in 2002. The return to Scolari has paid off as Brazil won last year’s Confederation Cup defeating reigning World Cup holders Spain 3-0. Since the return of Scolari, Brazil’s overall record has been excellent losing only twice: to England and Switzerland. No doubt they’ll face huge pressure but the Confederations Cup proved that Brazil is back in action and ready to deliver.

Croatia ficed-Croatia (20)- If you were to do a pound-for-pound rational of football teams, Croatia should rank amongst the top. Croatia is one of only two countries in FIFA’s current Top 20 with a population of less than 5 million . Uruguay being the only other country. Ever since their independence in 1991, Croatia has proved itself a formidable force in football, especially at the 1998 World Cup where they finished third. However that was the last World Cup where they even advanced past the Group Stage. 2002 and 2006 appearances didn’t pan out and a failure to qualify in 2010 almost made the Vatreni’s glory a thing of the past. However Croatia is looking to mount a comeback. In 2012, they signed on a new president in Davor Suker, himself a former great as the top goalscorer at the 1998 World Cup. The role of manager was replaced by former team captain Niko Kovac. The team successfully qualified for the World Cup. They also have a good mix of talent from veterans like Darijo Srna and Luka Modric and fresh young talents like Dejan Lovren and Mateo Kovacic. Croatia is one country that’s very capable of causing a surprise.

Mexico-Mexico (19)- Mexico is without a doubt the best team in the CONCACAF as far as legacy goes. No other North American team has qualified for the World Cup as often. However its greatness has appeared to have alluded them in the past couple of years. They failed to advance past the Group Stage of last year’s Confederations Cup, they lost to Panama in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and almost missed  qualifying for the World Cup in a qualifier against Costa Rica where they trailed 1-0 after 80 minutes. Two goals in the last 10 minutes kept them alive where they’d go on to beat New Zealand for the wildcard berth. Mexico has made efforts to make their near-loss to Costa Rica a thing of the past. They have not lost a game since but they have come across some tight ties like a scoreless draw against Nigeria and even a 2-2 tie against the US last month. Mexico hopes to be ready for Brazil. Miguel Herrera is one tough coach who favors home grown talent over talent from European leagues. That could be the factor that could either spell success or failure. Only the World Cup stage will decide that.

Cameroon-Cameroon (50)- Older people may remember Cameroon as the team that came from nowhere in 1990 to win 1-0 against defending champions Argentina. Cameroon charmed the world that year by reaching the quarterfinals and becoming the first African team to do so. However their glory appears to be a thing of the past. Cameroon has not advanced past the Group Stage since. This time around doesn’t show too much promise. They do have a German coach, Volker Finke, and have good talent in Samuel Eto’o and Alex Song but they do face a heavy battle in group play. Already this year, they’ve had mixed results with a 5-1 loss to Portugal and a 2-0 win against Macedonia. Nevertheless it’s too soon to judge. I’ve seen teams where nothing was expected of them and they’d advance far.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

This is a new feature. This is where I get to focus on the various stadia that are hosting the World Cup. I figure the arenas are worth talking about. Brazil has twelve stadia that will facilitate for the World Cup: seven just opened within the past year. The crazy thing is how the Group Stage play is organized. Usually in most cases at a World Cup, the country would have organized certain Group Stage groups playing at a set stage of stadiums. In Brazil’s case, a country with twelve stadiums may have three stadiums in cities close to each other to host the Group Stage games of two groups. Division that simple. Brazil has done it weird. All twelve of the stadiums will hold four Group Stage matches but they will be matches for four different groups. Additionally, all six of the Group Stage games for each individual group will be played in six different stadiums, and not all will be that close by. That will mean a lot of traveling around for the 32 teams, especially in a country of over 3 million square miles.

It’s confusing but hopefully it won’t interfere with the play as badly as the vuvuzelas did at the last World Cup. As for stadiums, Brazil has twelve good stadiums. Five are old and traditional but renovated in time. Seven are new built especially for the sake of hosting the World Cup. Here I’ll give you my first taste of my Stadium Spotlight. Note that each stadium I show in my Stadium Spotlight feature will be a stadium that will contest Group Stage matches for each respective group. These two I will focus on will host Group Stage matches in Group A. So without further ado, here are the two stadiums in focus:

-NATAL: Estadio das DunasDunas

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 42,086

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, D, G

One of seven new stadiums built especially for this World Cup, the most unique thing of the stadium is definitely the roof. While Brazil had made headlines with difficulties of building and completing stadiums in time for the World Cup, this stadium however earned praises from FIFA not just for the stadium itself but for development of areas surrounding the stadium which I will talk about later. This stadium finished in good time and officially opened this January. After the World Cup, the stadium capacity is to be extended to 45,000 seats and to be the stage of home games for both the America Futebol Clube and ABC Futebol Clube. The area surrounding the stadium has planned a shopping centre, commercial buildings, hotels of international standard and an artificial lake.

-MANAUS: Arena AmazoniaAmazonia

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 42,374

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, D, E, G

There was some criticism from England’s manager Roy Hodgson about Manaus hosting World Cup matches. He should watch his tongue as England will be playing the very first World Cup match of his group there, against Italy. This was one new stadium that actually was under question whether it would be ready for the World Cup. The stadium has been completed and was officially opened in March. The stadium has a full capacity of 46,000 and is to be the host stadium of Nacional FC after the World Cup, replacing the now-demolished Vivaldao Stadium.

And there you go. My first preview of the World Cup teams and stadiums. As for predictions, I’ll just settle for predicting the two countries that will advance past the Group Stage right now, and I predict it will be Brazil and Croatia.

Seven more groups and ten more stadiums to review before World Cup 2014 starts. Stay tuned for more.